Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pollo Express

1315 W 18th St, Chicago

Pollo Express does one thing, and it does it very well, and that thing is pollo. Specifically, char-grilled pollo. When you walk in, you see the birds spread-eagled and stacked on the grill, and you know that todo va bien. The smell is fantastic. You can get a whole one or a half of one. There are side dish options of rice and beans, but you do not need rice and beans. Listen carefully: what you want is some guacamole. Place your order and sit down. Oh, before you sit down, get yourself a drink. I recommend the peach Boing, which is as delicious as a peach nectar as you could ever desire. Sit down. The nice person will bring you a basket of chips, some picked red onions, and two salsas, one tomato one that somehow manages to be fiery hot yet wonderfully cool, and a second one that is warm and smoky, but with a definite kick. Both will leave your mouth burning. Then the guacamole will arrive (you will have noticed a man walking by with two avocados in his hands). Then, the chicken, and a basket of corn tortillas. If you ask nicely, they will also bring a little bowl of limes. The limes are not like normal limes - they are pale globes with seeds inside, and a much more intense citrus flavor. First, you will snatch up a drumstick and devour it, and it will be juicy and flavorful and delicious. Then, you will unfurl a tortilla onto your plate, slather guacamole onto it, squeeze some lime juice, add some onion, then some chicken hunks, then some salsa. You will eat it, and then eat many more just like it. It will be wonderful. The total cost of this meal (for two people, including the Boing), will be $17. Notice that if you are desirous of a meal to go, you can buy a whole chicken with two sides for $12.99, and they will throw in a half chicken for free. That's a meal for three people, friend. Personally though, I think it is nicer to dine in. You can watch soccer on the tv.

Oh, it is delicious. Pollo Express is a wonderful place.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lao You Ju

2002 S Wentworth Ave, Chicago

There's been surprisingly little buzz about Tony's latest endeavor, a small plates lounge style place, but given how much I adore Lao Beijing, of course I had to check it out. I get the sense that it's still very much a work in progress, and I'm curious to see how it develops. So, here are my thoughts:

The interior is swank. It's classy, it's mellow - it's a sexy little lounge. Good music, too. Everything looks fantastic, down to the chopsticks. Very nice.

The menu is much smaller than his other spots, and more elegant. However, I found myself somewhat confused - I was expecting this to be a small plates place, with different food from the other restaurants, and, um, lower prices. A lot of the menu is familiar to anyone who eats at Lao Beijing, and it's only a dollar or two cheaper. So we asked our server how many small plates we should be getting, and he clarified that the plates aren't actually that small. He said that 4 should be good for three people, especially if you add some appetizers. That's what we did, and we were still somewhat peckish at the end. Though we're also accustomed to stuffing ourselves like gluttons and being utterly immobile after any Chinatown dinner, so this was probably much better for us.

Still though... I was somewhat disappointed to realize how much of the menu was basically the same. Aside from, perhaps, the House Specialties - but I can't really afford any of those. HOWEVER - my boyfriend pointed out that the food isn't actually the same. To begin with, the presentation is seriously classed up. It's not a pile of food on a plate - it's elegant. It looks like something you'd pay a lot of money for. A lot of people may not appreciate that, or may find it obnoxious ("it's the same food, it's just that someone took an extra minute to pile it - less of it - onto a plate") - and this is not the restaurant for them. But it is a relevant point. Boyfriend was also of the opinion that the food was prepared with a bit more care. Of course, the presentation contributes to that impression, but I think he's right. It's a little more, hmmm, fancy? subtle? on point? I dunno. Less grease, more spice - we got the kung pao chicken Chengdu style, and there were little grains of herbs and chunks of garlic, and much less sauce, as opposed to the usual lovable pile.

The bill was a bit more, but not nearly as much more as you'd expect from the upgrade in classiness. Overall, to be honest, I still prefer Lao Beijing. I appreciate the idea behind fancy, upscale Chinese food (Opera strives to do the same), but ultimately, I'm just kind of less interested in paying more and having it be classed up. But I'm glad it exists. I do think that Lao You Ju will ultimately fare better if it goes further in the direction of small plates - make the plates smaller, so that people order a lot more of them, and drop the prices by a buck or two. $4-$5 plates will add up fast, but they won't feel that expensive. And it'll make the dining experience more noticeably different from what you can get at Lao Beijing - the possibility of not only having everything classed up a notch, but also of getting MORE dishes, which is something I always kind of want to do, simply because I love them all so much and have a hard time picking between them. If I could have a real small plates adventure, especially in that lovely room, I would definitely be coming back more regularly.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


358 W Ontario St, Chicago

Once again thanks to Groupon, my friend Dustin and I hit Zocalo for dinner last night. Upon arriving, our senses were assaulted with some kind of viciously potent Pine-Sol smell, which our server told us was emanating from upstairs. Also, there was a dude giving salsa dancing lessons (and ONE and TWO and ONE and TWO), which was seriously obnoxious.

BUT! The margaritas were $5 (Monday night special) and they were quite nice, though on the sweet side, and rather potent. We didn't go for a tequila flight, which was probably a mistake, because they have an absolutely gorgeous tequila list.

We progressed on to the ceviche sampler - both of us loved one, liked another, and didn't like a third. Luckily, our latter two categories were not overlapping, so it actually worked out perfectly. I totally dug the scallops with mango, but Dustin found it too sweet, and I was unimpressed with the swordfish, which he enjoyed. The tilapia was basically your standard lime and cilantro ceviche, and it was great.

For dinner, we shared the Carne Asada Norena, a tequila marinated skirt steak that was tasty though slightly overcooked, served with some very nice black beans and a pile of chiles that looked like something the cat coughed up but tasted great, and the Tinga Poblana. The Tinga Poblana was a grilled chicken breast - good but not amazing - served on top of this absolutely incredible combination of crumbled chorizo, potatoes, and poblano peppers and surrounded by a "cool avocado fresca", which was indeed wonderfully cool tasting and quite delicious.

Overall, a very nice meal. I definitely want to go back.

Response to the Michelin

The Michelin star ratings dropped today. I have to say, I'm unimpressed. I almost think they did a better job with the Bib Gourmand list, and I'm pretty salty about that one too.

So, the places I've been to, and my thoughts, in brief:

3 stars:

Alinea - deserves it all the way. One of the best meals I've ever had.

L2O - leaving aside the whole issue of the chef having just left, honestly, I was pretty underwhelmed by this place. We did the 12 course, I think, and as I recall, 4 courses were mindblowingly incredible, 4 were pretty good, and 4 were completely uninteresting. Maybe it got better in the interim, but now that the chef is gone, no way in hell am I spending the money to find out.

1 star:

Blackbird: I've only been once, and I pretty much hated it. It was weird. I genuinely didn't like almost all of the food I got. But I think it might have been some kind of weird fluke. Part of me wants to give it another chance, the rest of me thinks that I can have a perfectly fantastic dinner at Avec for less money so why not do that?

Bonsoiree: Good, but I wouldn't say it was really star quality. But I did very much enjoy the meal I had there, and being BYOB helps a lot.

Longman and Eagle: I've written about their brunch before, and actually, looking back at my review I'm upset with myself for not updating it after return visits. Because their biscuits and gravy are seriously awesome. I've also gone for dinner, and the wild boar sloppy joe is pretty effin' incredible. I think it deserves its spot on the list.

Schwa: Any ranking that puts L20 over Schwa is pretty much bankrupt. Schwa is an incredible dining experience. Yes, it's a pain in the ass to make a reservation, but the food is out of this world. Except for the one fish course with cotton candy that seems to be on the menu in some form every time I've gone, that I didn't really love, despite trying to every time. But everything else is seriously amazing. The fact that it's BYOB, the unbelievably attentive service - how often does the chef come out to tell you about your meal? For every gdamn course? Honestly, I loved Alinea, but Schwa is hands down the best dining experience in Chicago.

Sepia: I'm stoked to see Sepia make the cut. I've only had lunch there, but it was phenomenal. I'm looking forward to doing dinner. But I'm biased, because I'm in love with one of the servers.

Takashi: I've written about in detail already. What it does right, it does superbly, but there's also a lot that's kind of forgettable. I actually do forget about the place - it pretty much never comes to my mind when someone asks me for recommendations for amazing meals.

Ok, less detail for the Bib Gourmand, because I grow weary of this process, heh heh.
Bib gourmand:

The Bristol, Gilt Bar, Lula, mado (though they just got a new chef), Urban Belly - yes, most definitely.

Girl and the Goat probably deserved a star. Also, I'm skeptical of the idea that you can do it for under $40. The Publican also should've gotten a star

The Purple Pig, yeah, probably deserves its spot.

Nightwood I've only done for brunch, but it's frickin' awesome.

The Paramount Room - really? I mean, I love the poutine, and the cocktails are great, but... let's not go overboard. Not least because it's a tiny menu. Hopleaf also - I mean, they do have an amazing beer selection, and the food is good, but it's not exactly an extensive menu. If you're going that route, why not the Skylark? Or In Fine Spirits?

Veerasway - I LOVE the cocktails. They might even be my favorite in town. The food is completely unexciting and is wildly overpriced. I'm slightly offended to see it on the list, especially with not a single place on Devon making an appearance.

Han 202 - also irks me, especially given that Lao Beijing and Lao Szechuan aren't mentioned, and both are probably some of the best Chinese food you'll ever have in your life. Han 202 is fine as far as $20 5 course dinners go. I don't know of any other place where you can get a 5 course dinner for $20. But personally, I'd rather spend the $20 on fewer courses of higher quality somewhere else.

Nana (yes, I realize these are in no particular order) - I've had brunch there, it's pretty good. I definitely wanna try the dinner.

I'm surprised that Kuma's and Hout Doug's didn't make the cut (though the lines at Kuma's annoy the hell out of me). Personally, I think Province, Gioco, and maybe Deleece deserved a spot on the Bib Gourmand for sure. I'm downright angry that Lao Beijing isn't mentioned. I think Sticky Rice deserves a spot, but I acknowledge that it's not so well known. Overall, ethnic restaurants should've gotten more attention, but it's not surprising that they didn't get it.

Overall overall - meh. I'm unimpressed.